For years, apricot brandy occupied a dusty corner of the liquor store that I avoided. It confounded me. Most of what was there wasn’t even brandy, and most of it was awful: cloying and full of artificial flavoring and coloring.
For me, the brandy brought bad associations; it seemed to be the sort of thing people down on their luck bought in pints and drank out of little paper bags. As a young person, I remember classmates buying pints of Jacquin’s Apricot Flavored Brandy for illegal parties in the woods. Later, I had a friend who ordered apricot sours, and I was always vaguely embarrassed when she did that, particularly in dive bars.
As it happens, I had good reason to be skeptical about apricot brandy. Even the best bottles that bartenders use — say, Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot from Austria or Marie Brizard Apry from France — are liqueurs, and not technically brandies. You’ll rarely find a bottle of the stuff, good or bad, that’s higher than 60 proof. Because of that, apricot brandy will not work well as a base spirit in a cocktail.
And yet, and yet… Something about apricot brandy has appealed to generations of cocktailmakers. Just look in classic cocktail guides such as The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) or Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual (1934), and you’ll find plenty of recipes calling for the spirit.
Apricot brandy isn’t just a one-trick pony, either. You see it popping up in gin cocktails, rye cocktails, bourbon cocktails, pisco cocktails, even absinthe/Chartreuse cocktails such as the Yellow Parrot.
It seemed to be used wherever people enjoyed cocktails. In pre-Prohibition New York, you had a gin cocktail called the Frankenjack (equal parts gin, vermouth, Cointreau, apricot brandy) and its more popular variation, the Darb. Further south, you had the Baltimore Bang, a tasty mix of bourbon, apricot brandy and lemon juice: an apricot-y whiskey sour. And even farther south, in Havana, you had the Nacional, which combined rum, apricot brandy and lime juice.
And yet… Something about apricot brandy has appealed to generations of cocktailmakers.
I e-mailed a few bartenders to see whether they embrace or reject apricot brandy. Frankly, I was shocked by how positively they view it.
“Yeah, it’s really quite useful,” replied Derek Brown, owner of the Passenger, Eat The Rich, Mockingbird Hill, and other bars in D.C.. “The Baltimore Bang is my favorite.”
“I have been using it quite a bit with the classics,” wrote Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve, PX, and the Majestic — all in Alexandria, Virginia.
Joaquín Simó, owner of Pouring Ribbons in New York, was more expansive: “Apricot is undoubtedly a delicious fruit, but easily the most frustrating one I can think of. I eat eight mealy, boring blah ones, then have a single mind-blowingly delicious one that forces me to endure the next eight mealy ones. With such an inconsistent base product available, it makes perfect sense to use a high-quality apricot liqueur when making cocktails.” Simó noted Giffard, Merlet, and Rothman & Winter as go-to-brands, but warned that a small amount goes a long way. “I rarely use more than a quarter ounce,” he says.
I figured I should explore apricot brandy a little deeper. So, I’ve been tasting and making cocktails with a number of the available brands. Mostly, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and excited by what I’ve found.
My conclusions? For starters, most apricot brandies are labeled “apricot-flavored brandy,” meaning they are liqueurs made by adding sugar and flavoring to cheap grape brandies. You’ll only find a few that are actually distilled from apricots.
The most widely available true apricot brandy is Blume Marillen Apricot Eau-De-Vie, imported from Austria by Haus Alpenz, though, to be sure, “most widely available” still translates as “difficult to get one’s hands on.” The only others I’ve seen are the Hans Reisetbauer from Austria and Zwack Barack Palinks from Hungary. (And if you own either of these bottles, can you send me a little refill?) I enjoyed the Blume Marillen neat, the same way I’d sip a kirschwasser or poire Williams after dinner. It’s very dry and doesn’t have a ton of cocktail applications. But I liked it with gin, subbing in for dry vermouth, in a sort of martini variation with a dash of orange bitters.
Most of us, however, will have to make do with apricot liqueurs such as the Marie Brizard and the Rothman & Winter (also imported by Haus Alpenz). I do not recommend sipping those on their own. They’re cloying, like drinking apricot jam without the toast. But in a cocktail, I have to admit they bring something to the table that no other liqueur does — an odd, rich, not-too-sweet sweetness.
A word to the wise: Apricot is one category where you probably don’t want to venture too far from the top shelf. The other apricot brandies I tasted — from Hiram Walker, Bols and Jacquin’s — probably should remain in that dusty corner. In a pinch they’ll suffice, but they’re a far cry from the real thing.
Still, flipping through those old books, I can’t discern that there ever were halcyon days of apricot brandy. Mostly the same brands pop up then as now. Perhaps apricot brandy has always confounded. And, likewise, perhaps it has always pleasantly surprised.
This classic Cuban cocktail, invented at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, is essentially a daiquiri that relies on apricot liqueur as its sweetening element. Numerous variations abound, including some that call for the unfortunate addition of pineapple juice. Avoid the pineapple juice; stick solely with lime juice. In fact, seek out key limes — which are in season right now — and which take this drink to the next level.
The original likely used white Havana Club rum, which is not available in the United States. Instead, use a flavorful white rhum agricole from Martinique or a funkier white rum such as Rhum Barbancourt from Haiti, El Dorado from Guyana, or Banks 5 Island.
Remember, daiquiris are simple, elegant cocktails. Never garnish a daiquiri.
1½ ounces white rum
¾ ounce apricot liqueur
¾ ounce freshly squeezed key lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the rum, apricot liqueur, juices, and sugar. Shake vigorously for at least 30 seconds, then strain into a chilled cocktail (martini) glass.
This is an old variation on a whiskey sour that adds apricot liqueur to the mix as a sweetening element. The original recipe is served straight up in a chilled martini glass. The lovely version here is served over ice.
1½ ounces bourbon
¾ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ ounce apricot liqueur
1 teaspoon sugar
Twist of orange peel, for garnish
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the bourbon, lemon juice, apricot liqueur and sugar. Shake well, then strain into an ice-filled rocks or old-fashioned glass. Garnish with the twist of orange peel.
From Derek Brown of Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich, Southern Efficiency, The Passenger and Columbia Room.
The word “darb” was 1920s slang for a handsome and excellent chap. Gin and apricot spirits make a surprisingly good match in a cocktail like this one.
The original recipe calls for equal parts of all of the spirits, but I highly recommend a bit more of the gin and dry vermouth; the drink will still showcase the apricot without overpowering everything else.
1 ounce gin
1 ounce dry vermouth
¾ ounce apricot liqueur, preferably Rothman & Winter
¼ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the gin, vermouth, apricot liqueur and lemon juice, then shake well. Double-strain into a chilled cocktail (martini) glass. Garnish with the twist of lemon peel.
If the traditional way to enjoy an absinthe — with a little water and sugar — doesn’t appeal, try this cocktail, which dates from the early 20th century. Its anise, herbal and fruit notes will make you feel as if you’re sitting on the Left Bank in a beret. If you can’t get the real stuff, an absinthe substitute such as Pernod works just fine.
¾ ounce absinthe or Pernod
¾ ounce yellow Chartreuse (do not use green)
¾ ounce apricot liqueur
1 orange slice, for garnish
Fill a mixing glass two-thirds full with ice. Add the absinthe, yellow Chartreuse and apricot liqueur; stir vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with the orange slice.
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski